The Making of a Prophet: How Ellen White turned FICTION into "truth"
Walter T. Rea, Adventist Currents, March 1987, © Mars Hill Publications Inc.
The central theme in a series of books by Theodore H. White about recent American presidents is that presidents are not so much born as they are made, by events, supporters, the media—-but especially by the media.1
It might be argued similarly that the nineteenth-century prophets were not so much called as they were made, by events, true believers, books-—but especially, in the case of Ellen G. White, by the books. And that fact makes it all the more interesting to discover how the books that made the prophet were made.
During the last few years comparison studies undertaken by this author and others indicate that Mrs. White relied continually, and without credit, on the work of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century authors for the ideas, language, facts, and organization of her books.
A General Conference-sponsored study of this phenomenon was begun in 1980 under the direction of Dr. Fred Veltman, professor of religion at Pacific Union College. Veltman and his volunteers have compared…Desire of Ages with all the available published works that they could reasonably expect might contain sources for Mrs. White’s writing on the life of Christ…. Using a very conservative method of calculation, Veltman has documented source material that accounts for 34 percent of the fifteen chapters from Desire of Ages that he randomly chose for scrutiny.
More interesting than this 34 percent figure, however, is the kind of source Veltman discovered Ellen White sometimes used: fiction!
One of the Desire of Ages chapters Veltman included in his study concerns John the Baptist and the Wedding Feast at Cana. In a forerunner to Desire of Ages, volume two of Spirit of Prophecy, the following two paragraphs are included:
Rumors had reached Mary concerning her son and his sufferings. John, one of the new disciples, had searched for Christ and had found him in his humiliation, emaciated, and bearing the marks of great physical and mental distress. Jesus, unwilling that John should witness his humiliation, had gently yet firmly dismissed him from his presence. He wished to be alone; no human eye must behold his agony, no human heart be called out in sympathy with his distress.
In the later Desire of Ages these two fanciful paragraphs were omitted. Perhaps the more mature Ellen White, or her “bookmaker,” Marian Davis, recognized that scripture does not give authority to such thoughts or expressions. But one author had, an author whose work was in Mrs. White’s library—the Reverend J.H. Ingraham, a writer of spiritual fiction.
In his volume entitled The Prince of the House of David, first copyrighted in 1859, Ingraham had fictionalized the very thoughts just quoted from The Spirit of Prophecy that were excluded later from The Desire of Ages.4
In his preface Ingraham wrote:
The letters comprising the present volume were written for the purpose of presenting, perhaps, in a new aspect, and from a new point of view, the advent of the son of Mary, Christ the Lord, . . .
How strange that Ellen White should be inspired to use acknowledged fiction on the life of Christ. How odd that she and/or her helpers were inspired later to leave it out. This phenomenon is even more curious in the context of what Mrs. White had to say about fiction:
It is often urged that in order to win the youth from sensational or worthless literature, we should supply them with a better class of fiction.... The only safety for the inebriate, and the only safeguard for the temperate man, is total abstinence. For the lover of fiction the same rule holds true. Total abstinence is his only safety.6
But it was not just fiction that Ellen White wrote against. She also denigrated the very kinds of books that burdened the shelves of her own library and on which she depended so heavily for her published and unpublished works.
As a preparation for Christian work, many think it essential to acquire an extensive knowledge of historical and theological writings. They suppose that this knowledge will be an aid to them in teaching the gospel. But their laborous study of the opinions of men tends to the enfeebling of their ministry... As I see libraries filled with ponderous volumes of historical and theological lore, I think, Why spend money for that which is not bread.7
It was Mrs. White’s unacknowledged use of the fictions, fantasies, suppositions, and conjectures of others—a lifetime practice that her son, Willie, called her“habit”—that gave naive readers the impression that God was regularly providing her insights that others never had.8
Here are several examples of this “habit,” beginning with an example from her own husband. James White had written this in Life Incidents:
They flocked in from the neighboring towns; a revival commenced, and it was said that in thirteen families all but two persons were hopefully converted... I am of the opinion that not less than one hundred persons...are brought to believe.... (emphasis supplied)9
Ellen White makes what husband James reported as hearsay and opinion fact:
His first lecture was followed by a religious awakening in which thirteen entire families, with the exception of two persons, were converted.10
The conjecture of Daniel March:
There are more listeners in the public assembly than can be seen by the speaker’s eye.... We have only to turn to the sacred record to learn that these high and mighty ones, whose home is in some far distant world, have borne an active part both in the common and in the great events of this world.... They have taken the form of men, and shown themselves to human eyes, and spoken aloud in the languages of earth.... talking with men under the shadows of trees and tents and temple roofs,...
March’s conjecture made fact by White:
In the form of men, angels are often in the assemblies of the righteous;...
The guesswork of Conybeare and Howson:
If we consider these words as an outburst of natural indignation, we cannot severely blame them, ... If we regard them as a prophetic denunciation, they were terribly fulfilled, when this hypocritical president of the Sanhedrin was murdered by the assassins in the Jewish war.13
Coneybeare and Howson’s guesswork was reified by one who we have been told was privileged to see it all in vision:
These words were not an outburst of passion... Paul uttered a prophetic denunciation.... The judgment pronounced by the apostle was terribly fulfilled when the iniquitous and hypocritical high priest was murdered by assassins in the Jewish war.14
Reverend Frederic Farrar wrote cautiously:
. . . Julius, who can hardly have been absent from the brilliant throng who had listened to Paul’s address before Agrippa,..15
Ellen White adjusted Farrar’s caution to her liking:
Here Julius, the centurion who had listened to the Apostle’s address before Agrippa,...16
Farrar again is tentative:
There were no means of cooking; no fires could be lighted; the caboose and utensils must long ago have been washed overboard; the provisions had probably been spoiled and sodden....(emphasis supplied)17
Again, Mrs. White throws Farrar’s caution to the wind:
...the utensils had been washed overboard, and most of the provisions were water-soaked and spoiled.18
Some church leaders and a few laymen have known since the turn of the century that Mrs. White, in the book Sketches from the Life of Paul, depended considerably on two similar books, one by Conybeare and Howson and one by Bishop Farrar. What they did not know, however, was that her chapter 27, “Caesar’s Household,” was taken entirely from a published sermon of the same title written by the English cleric Henry Melvill.19
Melvill’s assumptions and speculations became, through Mrs. White’s claims, the words of the Holy Spirit. But there is no substantive point in the entire chapter that had not already come to Melvill before her.
The thoughtful guesswork of other uncredited authors pervades Ellen White’s most appreciated works—contributing unwittingly to the making of this prophet. Here is one such contribution from William Hannah:
They were practised hands that navigated this boat, who knew well the lake in all its moods, not open to unreasonable fear; but now fear comes upon them, and they are ready to give up all hope. Where all this while is he at whose bidding they had embarked? They had been too busy for the time with the urgent work required by the sudden squall, to think of him; the mantle of the night’s thick darkness may have hidden him from their view. (emphasis supplied)20
This is how Ellen White used his contribution in Desire of Ages:
Those hardy fishermen had spent their lives upon the lake, and had guided their craft safely through many a storm; but now their strength and skill availed nothing. They were helpless in the grasp of the temptest, and hope failed them.... they remembered at whose command they had set out to cross the sea.... But the dense darkness hid Him from their sight. (emphasis supplied)21
It would require books to produce all the instances of Ellen White’s unacknowledged source usage represented as special inspiration. But church leaders exhibit no shame for their continuing efforts toward the making and maintaining of the prophet; even though it has become increasingly obvious that the Seventh-day Adventist church made Sister White as much as Sister White made the Seventh-day Adventist church.
1. White, Theodore H., The Making of the President (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972).
2. Adventist Review, General Conference Bulletin no. 9, July 11, 1985, p. 18.
3. White, Ellen G., The Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. 2 (Battle Creek: Steam Press, 1877), pp. 99, 100.
4. Ingraham, JIH., The Prince of the House of David (Boston: Roberts Brothers, Publisher, 1890), pp. 156—159.
5. Ingraham, The Prince of the Ho use, preface, pp. ix, x.
6. White, Ellen G., Ministry of Healing (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1905), p. 446.
7. White, Ministry of Healing, p. 441.
8. White, Ellen G., Selected Messages, Vol. III (Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald Publishing Association, 1980), appendix C, p. 460.
9. White, James, Life Incidents (Battle Creek: Steam Press, 1868), pp. 62, 63.
10. White, Ellen G., The Great Controversy (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1911), p. 331.
11. March, Daniel, Night Scenes in the Bible (Philadelphia: Zeigler and McCurdy, 1868—1870), pp. 452, 453.
12. White, Great Controversy, pp 631, 632.
13. Conybeare, WI, Howson, IS., The Life and Epistles of St. Paul (New York: Crowell, 1852), p. 590.
14. White, Ellen G., Sketches from the Life of Paul (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1883) p. 222.
15. Farrar, Frederic W, The Life and Works of St. Paul (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1874), p. 563.
16. White, Sketches from the Life of Paul, p. 222.
17. Farrar, The Life and Works of St. Paul, p. 569.
18. White, Sketches from the Life of Paul, p. 266.
19. Melvill, Henry, Sermons (New York: Stanford & Swords, 1844), pp. 466-476.
20. Hanna, William, The Life of Christ (New York: American Tract Society, 1863), p. 262.
21. White, Ellen G., Desire of Ages (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1898), p. 334.
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